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This company’s conference room is now a classroom for Ukrainian refugees

“We had all those mothers sitting in someone’s guest room, alone with their children and their thoughts and worries.”

This company’s conference room is now a classroom for Ukrainian refugees
[Photo: courtesy Ecosia]

Inside the office of a tech company in Berlin, employees now work down the hall from a conference room where Ukrainian elementary school students are studying math and writing. The company, a social impact business called Ecosia, had extra room after shifting to a hybrid work model. As refugees began to flee to Germany from Ukraine, it decided to use that space to host a pop-up school.

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“Like so many other people, we were shocked when the invasion started,” says Christian Kroll, founder and CEO of Ecosia. “The next morning, we started brainstorming what we could do.” Their first thought was housing: Some employees offered room in their own homes for refugees, and others helped build a digital platform to connect refugees with volunteers offering housing. Company leaders considered offering up office space for housing, too. But when the team talked to an organization working with refugees, they realized that the biggest need was actually space for schooling.

[Photo: courtesy Ecosia]
While the Berlin government is setting up “welcome classes” for children refugees in public schools and hiring extra teachers, it hasn’t been able to keep up with demand as new children continue to arrive: An estimated 28,000 Ukrainian refugees have come to Berlin since the war began, and nearly half are children. Other young children may only be in Berlin temporarily as their families prepare to move elsewhere, and a pop-up school can be a better fit for them than full enrollment.

At Ecosia’s 90-employee office, roughly 40 children between the ages of 6 and 10 are now attending school in one wing of the floor, with the company’s whiteboards covered in lessons about science, Ukrainian, or basic German. Two Ukrainian volunteers are teaching classes using textbooks that the Ukrainian government has shared online, and three volunteer teachers from Germany are teaching the students basic German on Wednesday afternoons.

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[Photo: courtesy Ecosia]
“When the first refugees started arriving in Berlin, we saw that the first, most urgent need—finding a place to stay—was relatively well met,” says Faina Karlitski, a consultant at BCG, an organization that helped set up a project called Classroom for Ukraine, part of a wider effort called Alliance 4 Ukraine. “But then we had all those mothers, sitting in someone’s guest room, alone with their children and their thoughts and worries. In most cases, the children who came to our introduction day had not played with another child for more than two weeks . . . and the mothers had no childcare and thus, no time to start really thinking about their next steps in a new country. So, our main idea to fill this need was to be fast and unbureaucratic—to quickly create a space that fills the need of children to socialize with other children, have structure in the day, and get interesting stimuli.”

The nonprofit worked with a child welfare organization, Die Arche, to help set up a temporary classroom at the office, and refugee families learned about the opportunity through word of mouth. (There is now a waiting list.) Ultimately, the children will transition to regular school. “That will happen soon,” says Ecosia’s Kroll. “But in the meantime, we just needed some kind of a solution. And we’re happy that we were able to offer that.”

He’s hoping that other companies do the same. Karlitski has identified at least 20 similar spaces in Berlin that could serve as temporary classrooms. “Around 10 mothers contact us every day to ask for a place for their child, and that is only for primary school and without any advertising,” she says. The organization now plans to expand to other German cities.

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Ecosia also advocates for larger financial engagement. After the invasion began, the company decided to invest 20 million euros in renewable energy to help in Europe’s transition away from Russian oil. As a sustainability-focused business—Ecosia makes a search engine that funds tree planting—its own energy use was already renewable. But the company wanted to invest more, and argues that larger tech companies could use their scale to have even more of an impact, both for the current crisis in Ukraine and the ongoing crisis of climate change. “I think whenever there’s a crisis, everybody has the obligation to do something,” says Kroll.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

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